Tag Archives: food

Comedo, ergo sum.

If you tune back to 30 years ago, you’d realize how huge the invasion of food into our lives has become today. And I don’t mean the substance itself, which we used to put the emphasis on in the past. I’m talking about images of food: recipes, celebs being photographed while cooking or eating food, culinary globe-trotters sharing their gastronomic experiences from around the world, bloggers displaying their fave meals before (and often instead of) consuming them. These days, it seldom happens that a bunch of folks would sit at a table somewhere, and not bring the conversation to food (book talk used to be the fad in the days of yore; but no more).

First, our newly emerged middle class figured that you don’t just spend your time mooing while munching: “Yummmm, tasty! Gimme some more!”, and that’s it. Socializing while eating is a chance to utter complex and sophisticated conclusions about the consistency and texture of the sauce as well, or demonstrate your ability to discern saffron from cinnamon, and maybe even tell a story about that one time when you ate some awesome rice while you were in Goa (you did have heart-burn for days afterwards, but don’t you mention that). Of course, as in every cultured conversation, you should insert little bits of pretentiousness and idiosyncracies – detailed insight about ingredients people should never combine with fish, others you’d never dare taste even if you had a gun pressed to your head (supposedly), and still others that you’ve unsuccessfully tried to convince your little daughter to learn eating. Oh, and let’s not forget the subject of all those religious culinary taboos that have somehow sneaked back into our lives along with the latest “lifestyle shift”.

But the kitchen talk goes most smoothly when we’re talking about healthy food, whatever that’s supposed to mean. You’re either for or against saturated fats, gluten, fibers, iron and other heavy metals. And if you happen to have a vegetarian in your company, or God forbid, an all-out vegan, there’s no way in the world the conversation could stray away from the food thematic. All the books about looking after oneself and improving oneself that Foucault wrote, rely heavily on reviewing the various vectors of individualization and self-expression, now sexuality being pushed aside by food habits as the prime subject. Losing weight, detox diets, cleansing the thoughts and spirit – it’s all there. A friend of mine who lives abroad, comes every summer for vacations back here, and each time she fiollows a brand new diet, which she is always so eager to promote through personal example. Last time she had gone crazy about that US-inspired “paleo-diet”. Eating only stuff humans used to be able to afford before they became a sedentary species and started growing wheat and potatoes, milking cows, and keeping bees. Thus, the whole company around the table would teleport themselves into the imaginary Paleolite, and spend hours discussing what sorts of roots and berries people used to eat back then, how long they used to run in chase of antelopes, and how good and healthy they felt because of all that. Oh, by the way, does whiskey count as fermented paleo-fruit? Hmmm. Must check that with my Facebook paleo group to be sure.

What’s remarkable is that today, a more global meta-conversation around the Web is getting shaped up, transcending mere food conversation. See, I’m no longer just eating food and sharing my perceptions with those around me: I feel compelled to rub my awesome experience into the face of people whom I’ve barely met, but who I’m sure would be more than happy to vicariously “taste” my meal, even though they can’t really take a bite or smell it in real. It doesn’t matter – I HAVE to share it with the world! Otherwise why even bother eating? A new term sprang up in the 80s, “food porn“. As in sumptuously putting delicious food on display, manipulating the images with photographic filters and special lighting, even sprinkling colorful fake food elements made of plastic here and there – and making it all look even more natural and healthy than the original product. Today, everyone with a decent mobile phone can be an amateur “food pornographer” so to speak, and entice their friends and make them jealous by displaying the meal he’s just been served at the restaurant. You may not like seafood at all, but the spectacular sight is so mesmerizing, how can you resist uploading it in Instagram? You brag before your virtual friends, and you believe yourself so much, you even start feeling jealous about yourself! Because gradually, without noticing, you’ve experienced a grand cultural shift: now you’re enjoying the food much less; rather, its very images appear more savory than the food itself.

The same effect, though now with a trace of abstract thinking, can be noticed amidst the flood of meal names that bombard our senses at every corner. Boeuf Stroganoff, Duck Magret on A Bed of Geese Liver… It’s not very different with the salads, same exotics there: a few fresh straws guarantee you a quick trip to Nice, California, Morocco. The salad genre is very well represented in my local cuisine here, it provides huge opportunities for variations. Still, there’s the debate what is truly local national cuisine, and what was borrowed from (and more infuriatingly, by) our neighbors. National pride hasn’t bypassed the food domain either, obviously. There’s also the tendency to put food names in diminutive form, thus making them sound more “homely”, creating a sensation of delicious, grandmother-style old-school cosiness in the mouth and mind. Besides, like I said, there’s the heroics of gastronomic nationalism. It’s a big thing around my place. A shashlik could still be quite oriental, but if it’s got a “haiduk” prefix attached to it, its very mentioning causes something to stir in your chest, and you’re ready to stick a 20 buck bank note to the forehead of the clarinetist who’s blowing his mind off a couple feet away from the table (any self-respecting traditional restaurant should have a loud band of wind instrumentalists, no?)

An inexplicable notion seems to persist that the further back in time we dwell in our imagination, the better our ancestors used to eat. Better, meaning healthier, tastier, more accomplished as a whole. It stands to reason that those glorious folks of yore would feast just as gloriously, right? Oh well, when the belly talks, reason sits silently somewhere in the corner. Because we don’t even need to go back as far as the Paleolite to realize that the cuisine of our predecessors may’ve looked a bit… well, boring. If we remove things like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans and all those spices, that is. And think about it: we often like identifying with the downtrodden common-folk, but when it comes to food, we suddenly prefer the Sultan’s dinner. How come?

I’m not sure if we’ve given up on developing a truly unique national culture of our own at this point and frankly I don’t care, but as far as national cuisine goes, we’ve been working on that one quite actively as of late. The idea is to eat certain things that are trademarked within our touristic-political borders without anyone else having a chance to claim them: our white cheese “sirene“, our rakia… oh, and don’t you dare touch or rename our “sour milk” that you so stupidly call yogurt! We’re prepared to grab the yatagans right away! The problem with national cuisine is, there’s been no one to hold the food canon in check for the last 30 years, since the demise of communism, and the almighty Balkantourist institution along with it (you know, the one that pulled the so called “Shopska salad” out of their ass, and retroactively created a whole pre-history around it). Who knows if it’s made with or without peppers, parsley, ham and olives any more? Take such a typically patriotic meal like Tarator (essentially, yogurt diluted in water and mixed with minced cucumbers). Should it have garlic in it? Should there be walnuts and fennel? I’m confused! We all are! Let’s just add whatever we can find in the fridge then! I recently found an essay entitled “The Basic State of Tarator” in a recipe book, by the way: all you need is 1) yogurt, 2) water, 3) cucumber, 4) garlic, and 5) vinegar. Nothing more. Yes, building and maintaining a national identity used to go through raising monumental buildings, dams, power lines and ports – now it has descended into crafting recipes, and posting them on Youtube.

I don’t know how exactly food has ended up in the center of culture. Perhaps the reason is that eating remains the most egoistical action there is; even having sex requires some form of cooperation. And my belly is only mine! A society where the individual is an end in itself, the first, last and only carrier of the meaning of life, the only thing worth caring about, the substances sinking into our digestive systems have increasingly taken the front row, the way we consume them is seated at the helm, and is steering the ship to… wherever. Everything else comes next, it’s of secondary importance: from exalted aesthetics and gustatory expertise, to a scientifically grounded and reasonably articulated understanding of the benefits that eating brings to the soul and body, to the paranoid fear that the corporations are deliberately poisoning us with… chemistry(?) And thus, what used to be one of the most solitary physiological experiences has turned into the most contagious spectacle.

Double standards for second-rate citizens

EU’s hypocrisy has come to the fore once more, what with the recent outcry from a number of Central and East European countries against the double standards in many products, and not just food products, that are being sold at one quality in West Europe, while its lesser quality versions are being dumped onto “second-hand”, “New” Europe for the same price or even more:

“Bulgaria and Romania have joined an outcry against multinational food companies, accused of selling lower quality products in Eastern Europe compared to those offered in the Western supermarkets.”
Source: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bulgaria-romania-join-outcry-against-varying-food-quality-in-the-eu-03-07-2017

In a nutshell, the same product, produced by the same company, advertised in the same way and supposedly being produced in the same manner with the same ingredients, has turned out to be quite different in, say, Germany, Austria and France on one side, and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania on the other.

A large investigation spanning several countries has included dozens of products from 5 major groups, including foods and home items such as dish-washing and clothe-washing detergents, etc. The same product has been compared in the markets and shops at the two sides of the now supposedly removed Iron Curtain. The most prominent examples being chocolate, non-alcoholic beverages, meat, dairy products, fruit juices and children’s foods.

The comparative research has found out that identical products of the same brand have vast differences in their ingredients, their quality and even the terms of duration. As soon as they get labeled, the same product receives a different label, depending on their destination. The ministers of foods and agriculture of Romania, Bulgaria and a number of other East European countries are now planning to refer the matter to the EU commissioner for consumer rights. These governments have also called urgent meetings of their ministers to address the issue, so it’s not like this isn’t a biggie, and is just some sort of conspiracy theory being floated around the yellow press.

Central European governments have issued official protests, and are now calling for the EU to take action against these double standards:

Just a couple of examples. In Germany, a non-alcoholic beverage that contains sugar has been labeled accordingly, because it contains sugar. In Bulgaria, the very same product is made with fructose-glucose syrup instead. The “natural” juices in Germany contain 100% fruit, at this side of the divide, not so much. The same brand and same model of product has different contents. Some would say, “but it’s cheaper!” Well, guess what? It isn’t. Often, it’s even more expensive.

Children’s foods are another example of these discrepancies. A fruit mash contained 1.5% proteins per 100 g in Germany, and 1% per 100 g here. And this isn’t just about quality and ingredients, it’s about the prices too. The most striking discrepancy in the whole research came exactly from two types of children’s mashes, by the way. One was 90% more expensive than its West European counterpart (supposedly same ingredients and quality), the other by 107% (that one was established to be of lower quality). The same price gap is observed in the dairy products, between 20% and 70% more expensive in East Europe (supposedly lower living standard, so prices should be lower, not higher there, right?)

While these foods may not be harmful or poisonous (God forbid!), they’ve often been incorrectly labeled as identical everywhere, and these discrepancies are not just incidental, they’re endemic. So people have become very suspicious, and the question naturally arises, what gives!?

Mind you, even local products show such discrepancies, and these go way beyond the possible statistical error. The research included 6 types of local products, from hams to canned food to some sorts of sausages. There are uniform EU standards about these things, right? Or at least there are supposed to be. Well first, the experts investigated if we’re talking of the same type of meat. They established there were noticeable differences in the physical and chemical properties of the meat. They were examined for soy proteins, water concentration, proteins, fats, etc. Some sausages showed water contents that were by 3.2% and more higher than their German counterparts. We can’t be just talking of artificial pumping of water into the meat to make it heavier – not after the technological time for its maturing had passed.

Fat contents in the Bulgarian products was 1,2% lower on average. Salt, on the other hand, was way higher than in the EU product.

Noticeable differences were also observed in the same chocolate products (mostly in their outer looks), and also some sorts of cheese (including color, texture, etc).

The issue will be put for discussion at the upcoming meeting of the EU council of ministers on July 17/18. Officially, Slovakia will be the one to present the question, although it’ll be speaking on behalf of at least half a dozen countries. This is a major cause for concern, because it’s an issue that’s not just about the rules of the market, it’s also political. East Europe is feeling slighted, overlooked, bypassed, betrayed. It’s not helping the European cause, what with all the Euroskepticism that’s been on the rise, including in countries that have joined the union relatively recently (and where sentiments of regret for that decision have been rising lately).

In some countries like mine, there’s also been a wide-spread sentiment that joining the EU came at a huge cost: while we’re now being granted scraps in the form of EU funds, we’ve had to dismantle much of our agricultural, food and clothing industry in favor of our West European brethren, much of it supposedly privatized, then sold for coins like junk, never to be re-opened again. In its place, various imported goods have flooded our markets, of much lower quality (now proven), for higher prices, and not benefiting our economy or our labor market in any way whatsoever – save for lining the pockets of the big international trade chains who’ve pushed our local smaller producers into a corner, forcing them to sell their produce for a fraction of its real value, just barely allowing them to make ends meet.

This can’t continue much longer. The people are not that stupid. They’ve started to notice that they’re being played. And unless something is changed, sooner or later the critical point will come when they’ll have to say enough is enough. And then the EU would be in big trouble.